SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Peter Matthiessen is now 86 years old, and he has written what he says may be his last word. It is a novel about a visit to a Nazi extermination camp, called "In Paradise." The book caps a prolific career that spanned six decades. Peter Matthiessen is the only writer to ever win a National Book Award in both fiction - for his last book, "Shadow Country" - and adult nonfiction, for his travel journal "The Snow Leopard."
Tom Vitale visited Peter Matthiessen recently at his home in Long Island, just before the author began a round of experimental chemotherapy for cancer.
TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Peter Matthiessen is filled with the vitality of past adventures as he leads a tour of his country-style home. On the living room wall are a dozen large, black-and-white photographs of New Guinea tribal warriors.
PETER MATTHIESSEN: And this guy is shooting an arrow at him, and you can see the arrow in the air. He was funny 'cause he almost got killed right in front of my eyes. And I thought he was showing off for me.
VITALE: The pictures were taken in 1961 - half by the author; the others by his traveling companion Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared on that expedition and may have been the victim of cannibals.
MATTHIESSEN: These guys are all bent over like this 'cause they're terrified of getting an arrow in the stomach because they're barbed arrows that break off. And it's almost always fatal. So they stayed down like that. And I was photographing them, and I was staying down like that.
VITALE: Matthiessen wrote a book about that journey called "Under the Mountain Wall," one of his many nonfiction chronicles of man and his relation to the natural world. His new novel, "In Paradise," is based on a different kind of journey - a trek into the heart of darkness. In 1996, Matthiessen, who was a Zen Buddhist, traveled to Poland on a meditation retreat. It took place at the former Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz. What he saw floored him.
MATTHIESSEN: Fences and barbed wire and towers - watchtowers, and then the gas chambers. And the gas chambers were all blown up at the end of the war so that they are simply these grim-looking, pale ruins out in the distance. It's a very grim scene. And so it's the enormity of it that really stuns you the first time.
VITALE: Matthiessen tried to capture that experience in a book of journals, but he says the writing was flat. So he cast the story as a novel. The hero of "In Paradise" was born in Poland to a Jewish mother, but taken to America as an infant and baptized. Now with a faded photo in his pocket, he is returning 50 years later to search for his mother in the place where she may have perished.
MATTHIESSEN: (Reading) In this empty place then, at the end of autumn 1996, what was left to be illuminated? What could the witness of warm, well-fed visitors possibly signify? How could such a witness matter, and to whom? No one was listening.
MCKAY JENKINS: The way he articulates the rage, the despair, the existential delirium that you feel when you're in a place like this, was precisely what I felt.
VITALE: Mckay Jenkins is editor of "The Peter Matthiessen Reader," and the author of nature books including "Poison Spring." Jenkins has done research at a concentration camp in Austria.
JENKINS: What he does in this book is, he captures the incredible brokenness that one experiences at this place. His final words in the book - he has his central character sitting in a church - he says, in the wavering of candles, he sits motionless, broken-brained and wholly brokenhearted. And that phrase - broken-brained and wholly brokenhearted - is precisely the way one feels when one is in one of these places.
MATTHIESSEN: (Reading) Before the retreatants can retire to insomnia or nightmare, he tries to dispel the murk and rancor by relating the strange parable from the Old Testament that Christians call the dark night of the soul. And Jacob grappling in the night with the dark angel of the unknown cries out, I cannot let you go until you tell me your true name. In this place, we are all struggling with our dark angels, Ben suggests.
VITALE: With "In Paradise," Peter Matthiessen has come full circle - from writing about the extinction of animals in his early nonfiction, to writing about the extinction of man.
MATTHIESSEN: Man has been a murderer forever, somebody says in the book. The number of people killed in the past century, human beings killing each other, is just phenomenal. How has civilization - so-called - come this far and people are still designing tools to kill each other with no other purpose than killing? Why are we doing it? Why are we doing it?
VITALE: Peter Matthiessen says he wants the readers of "In Paradise," likely his last book, to consider the potential for evil in all of us. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.